Triathlon: Biomechanical Foundations

By 01/17/2023No Comments

Dr. Lukus Klawitter Ph.D, CSCS

The human body is quite extraordinary.  For example, A newborn baby does not have the strength to hold its own head up, but within months they can roll to their back, press their chest up to look around, get onto fours and begin to crawl, support themselves on two legs, and then take an actual step.  The development of the neuromuscular and skeletomuscular system in such a short time is outstanding.  Our body adapts to the environment we are in and the stresses we place upon it.  Therefore, how we train and the sport that we train, influences how our body adapts.  

The sport of triathlon is unique. Training for the three disciplines of triathlon is a bit contradictory if we think about how the body functions mechanically for swimming, biking, and running.  When we swim our body is horizontal, the heart operates differently because it is without the influence of gravity.  While kicking when swimming our hips and knees are primarily extended with only slight flexion, and our ankles are entirely plantar flexed.  Our upper body drives the movement with large ranges of motion within the shoulder joint and girdle.  When pedaling a triathlon bike, we are primarily flexed horizontally at the pelvis with lumbar flexion, our shoulders are rounded in, chest contracted, neck hyper extended, elbows flexed, the knees experience large ranges of flexion and extension, the ankle primarily dorsi-flexed, and we are creating the movement with the force produced by the muscles of our lower body.  Our legs are experiencing massive compressive forces from the force we press into the pedals and the force of our femoral head jamming into or hip socket.  And then we have to run!  On the run, our spine is fully extended, pelvis neutral, our hips experience large ranges of flexion and hyper extension, our knees undergo large ranges of flexion and extension, and our ankle should experience full plantar and dorsi flexion. 

As we can see, the muscles and joints of our body function much differently between the three disciplines.  For example, while pedaling in the TT position our quadriceps and hip flexors are contracted throughout the entire pedal stroke.  Well, the quadricep muscles assist with flexion of the hip and extension of the knee.  Predominantly activating these muscles can cause various hip and knee issues while also inhibiting the large muscles like our glutes and hamstrings.  Therefore, moving from pedaling for 2+ hours at a high work rate and then immediately into a hard run, it becomes difficult to relax the quadriceps so the glutes and hamstrings can assist with the effort. All in all, this can influence our stride length and rate and leave us exposed to a multitude of injuries.  

We need to consider specific activation/strength and mobility exercises of the muscles and joints we use in triathlon.  This will allow us to be able to move more efficiently within the three disciplines while utilizing the proper muscles throughout the correct ranges of motion  All my athletes undergo a specific foundation exercise plan that is generated towards triathletes who work full time jobs.  Most occupations do not consider ergonomics and can influence our triathlon performance.  For example, sitting in a chair while typing on a computer.  Our hips are primarily contracted, shoulders rolled in, elbows flexed, and neck likely flexed forward.  This is not setting us up for fluid movement in our training session to come.  If you ask any of my athletes, they will tell you I am religious to the foundations plan.  Foundations are a mandatory weekly exercise that sets us up for great force production and healthy bodies.  Here are some examples of a strength exercises and mobility movements for the joints primarily used in triathlon:


Mobility – Ankle flossing.  Place a strong elastic band (an old bike tube works as well) around the lowest point of your tibia, just above the ankle joint.  Step forward so there is a strong resistance pulling on the tibia.  Now, with your foot firmly planted, floss the joint by moving forward and back like you are doing an achilles stretch.  This helps to increase range of motion in the ankle joint because pedaling a bicycle often makes our ankle locked and we can’t get the plantar flexion needed for kicking in swimming.

Strength – Big Toe MVC’s.  Place a ruler or small piece of wood underneath your big toe and raise the big toe.  Holding the board in place, press your big toe into the board as hard as you can without contracting your four other toes.  The big toe is an underestimated body part that has a major influence in the force we place into the ground and how our feet and ankles track. 


Mobility – Couch Stretch.  A classic that is very necessary.  Kneel in front of a couch while placing the foot on the top and tibia parallel with the front of the couch.  Contract your glute while keeping your torso taught and press forward till you feel a stretch in your quadricep muscle group.  This is a great exercise to isolate the quads especially where they insert on the patella.  The couch stretch also removes the shear forces at the knee we often see when one stands on one foot and tries to stretch the quad.

Strength – Kolkov Squat.  Can perform as a back squat or goblet squat.  In a wide stance and feet slightly externally rotated, squat down to a tempo of seven seconds, hold at the deepest point you can go with proper mechanics and hold there for five seconds, then as fast as you can with proper technique stand back up.  This is the one true exercise to promote knee durability. 


Mobility – Runner’s Lunge.  A great exercise to do immediately after every bike session.  It opens up the hips and takes pressure off our SI joint.  You can even add in thoracic rotations by alternating extending one arm to the ceiling.

Strength – Banded Isometric Single Leg Squat.  Band at knees, feet shoulder width apart, raise one foot off the ground by flexing one knee.  Doing your best to keep your pelvis neutral perform a half squat and hold for 7-10 seconds, return to starting position.  This movement engages the glutes in multi planes while training to keep the pelvis stabilized. 

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